Sunday, January 16, 2022

Hispanic Snow Whites do exist

Once again, for the people in the back: folktales have variants. In the oral tradition, they exist in many versions. Snow White is not a single story (even though most people only know the Grimm version). It's the name of a tale type, which exists pretty much all around the world. Therefore no, Snow White is not always white, neither literally, nor figuratively. For example, in some cases, she is orange. In the earliest Grimm manuscript, she is blonde with black eyes. And many versions don't note color at all, just that she is beautiful.

People have been getting their undies in a bunch about Disney casting a Hispanic actress for a live-action Snow White. Discussion on artificial categories aside, here is a select list of Hispanic Snow White folktales. 

You might note that the princess' coloring is the least exciting thing about them.

Blanca Flor (Spain)

Aurelio Espinosa collected some versions of Snow White, one of them called Blanca Flor (White Flower). In this one the (birth) mother tries to get rid of the beautiful girl by reading spells from a spellbook, and sinking her into a rock. She is rescued with the help of the Virgin Mary, and taken in by robbers. The mother poisons her with a silk shirt, but when a sexton takes the shirt off, she comes back to life.
In another version, from Asturias, the stepmother tries to lock the princess in to keep her beauty hidden, but doesn't succeed. She is rescued by a group of men, and in the end decides to marry the servant who revived her.

Blanca De Nieve (Dominican Republic)

Andrade's classic collection of folktales from the Dominican Republic has a whole lot of Snow White variants. My favorite is the one where the queen (named Snow) is not Snow White's mother at all; she just finds out from her mirror about the beautiful girl, and sends out a firefly to find her. Turns out, Snow White lives among the dwarfs in the woods. She is engaged to a prince, and he has ordered the dwarfs to guard her. When she is poisoned, a fairy appears and wakes her up from her death-like state so she can marry her prince.

Blanca Nieves (Puerto Rico)

There are several Snow White variants collected from Puerto Rico (link above). My favorite is the one where the queen's servants feel pity for Snow White, so instead of killing her, they drop her off in the mountains at the dwarfs' house. When she is later poisoned by her stepmother, the dwarfs simply take her to a doctor, who removes the piece of poisoned apple from her throat. She then falls in love with one of the dwarfs and marries him.
In another version in the same collection, the girl is adopted by robbers. The envious (birth) mother hires a beggar woman to stick a pin into the girl's head. The robbers find her dead; their leader pulls the pin out, reviving her, and then they go and hunt the assassin down.

Blanca (Mexico)

Also known as "the princess who studied to be a priest", collected in Los Altos. A vain queen sends out spies, strategically eliminating women who are more beautiful than her. This includes her own daughter, who manages to survive and find refuge in the wilderness, where she becomes the Queen of Thieves. Her mother manages to kill him with some enchanted slippers, and the thieves put her in a coffin and float her out to sea. Monks find the coffin, take her slippers off, and she comes back to life. They dress her as a man, and she studies for priesthood, until one day her parents come to hear her preach. She takes her father's confession, and tells him the whole story. Her father kills the mother, and restores Blanca to being a princess.
In another Mexican version, from Jalisco, the princess is chased into the woods by her stepmother. She befriends three wolves, who are actually princes cursed by the evil queen. The wolves attack the palace, kill the queen, and then the eldest asks the princess to split his head with an ax. He turns back into a prince, and they get happily married.

(Apparently, poison slippers are the preferred method in many Mexican versions.)

Blanca Rosa (Chile)

In this version, the girl exiled by her stepmother ends up in the abode of forty thieves, who worship her as the Virgin Mary. The queen finds her and sticks a poisoned pin into her head. The thieves put the dead girl into a coffin and float her out to sea. A prince finds her, but when he pulls the needle out of her head, Blanca Rosa wakes up so frantic and panicking that he just sticks it back in... He revives her again later, and asks her to be his wife. His spinster sisters try to get rid of Blanca, but of course, she survives in the end.

The envious stepmother (Argentina)

In this version, the (nameless) princess is chased into the wilderness by her (birth) mother, and a gang of robbers adopts her as their mom (!). In the end, when a kind revives her by taking off her enchanted ring, the princess only agrees to marry him if he pardons all of her robber sons.

Now, let's be real: none of this means that the Disney movie is going to be any good. (Most live action Disney films... *cough* aren't.) If you ask me, anyone would be better off if any of these awesome variants were adapted instead.

But honestly neither the whiteness, nor the European-ness of Snow White is a constant thing in folklore. Just sayin'.

Friday, December 31, 2021

312 earworms

It has now become tradition on this blog to post on the last day of the year about the earworms I wake up with every morning. For some reason I rarely wake up without something playing on my inner radio, so I started making notes, and doing the statistics at the end of the year. You can find the previous posts for 2020, 2019, and 2018 on the links. The breakdown:

2018: I woke up with music in my head on 306 mornings, with a total of 150 individual songs in one year

2019: 316 mornings, 137 songs

2020: 346 mornings, 149 songs

This year's stats: 312 mornings, 124 songs. There were 54 that I only had once, the rest repeated multiple times throughout the year. This year I had a large number of songs that kept coming back on four, five, or more occasions. As usual, here is the Top 5 list: 

First place, with 16 mornings, a new personal record:
(I loved this show and the music, and this scene was especially well done. But I did not expect it to stick this much...)

On second, third, and fourth place, we have music from In the Heights. They had absolute success in my brain this year. I woke up to the soundtrack on 66 mornings. The most common, with 10 of those mornings, was this song:

Basically the entire soundtrack made an appearance quite often: Paciencia y fe (8), Respira (7), When you're home (7), It won't be long now (7), Cold champagne (4), Benny's dispatch (3), 96,000 (3), Home all summer (3), Blackout (3), Carnaval del barrio (3), Finale (3), No me diga (2), The club (2), Piragua (1).

In shared third place, also with 8 mornings, I had this classic (I blame The Boys, and the year 2020):

And still in third with 8 mornings, I had the song below, from Julie and the Phantoms. The show was cute but forgettable, but its music stuck: I woke up to it 19 times. Next to this song, I also had Other side of Hollywood (7) and Wake up (4).

The fourth place is equally crowded. Next to In the Heights and Julie, I had an individual contestant here too, from a movie I haven't even seen. I woke up to it on 7 mornings, and it always put me in a feminist mood.

Fifth place goes to three individual contestants, with 6 mornings each:

Next to the Top 5, I have also had a blast with the soundtrack of Encanto. It could not catch up to the others in one month, but it is going strong. So far I have had it stuck in my head on 17 mornings, including today. It has no bad song, which shows in the numbers: All of you (4), Surface pressure (3), Dos oroguitas (3), Family Madrigal (2), What else can I do (2), We don't talk about Bruno (2), Waiting on a miracle (1).

Between Encanto, In the Heights, Moana and Hamilton it seems like this year Lin-Manuel Miranda was single-handedly responsible for a third of my earworm music (95 mornings). 

I am also a little ashamed to admit that the soundtrack of the latest Cinderella movie also stuck, even though the movie was atrociously unwatchable. Still, the music took up 8 of my mornings so far.

And here comes this year's WTF pick: a song I have not heard in decades and has no meaning to me. And yet one day I woke up with this playing in my head.

That's all. The experiment continues. It doesn't really mean anything, but I am greatly entertained by it. Do you have earworms too? What was your music this year?

Happy 2022!

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

StorySpotting: Madrigal magic powers (Encanto)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I watched Encanto in the movie theater and then went and immediately watched it again. It is a stunning, deeply moving film. It also emotionally knocked me on my ass for a whole day.

Where was the story spotted?

Encanto (Disney, 2021.)

What happens?

The main characters of the movie, the members of the Madrigal family, all have special supernatural powers (except for Mirabel, our hero). They gain their powers from a magic candle, gifted once upon a time to the family's matriarch.

What's the story?

All the powers granted to the Madrigal family have their counterparts in folklore and legend. Since this is one of my areas of interest (or nerdiness) as a storyteller, I couldn't pass up blogging about them. Let's see in order:

Pepa Madrigal - Weather control

In a folktale from Cape Verde two girls encounter three fairies, with vastly different results. Similarly to the Frau Holle story the hard-working girl is rewarded, while the lazy girl is punished. Both reward and punishment, however, are unusual. Good Maria gains powers so that "when she laughs the rain may fall, and when she smiles the weather thickens", while Bad Maria gets powers so "when she smiles, a strong wind blows, and when she laughs, a tempest uproots all the trees on the shore and wrecks all the ships at sea." Their mood, just like Pepa's, directly affects the weather.
There is also a queen who controls the weather in a Transcarpathian folktale I published in English a while ago.

Julieta Madrigal - Healing

Julieta, Mirabel's mother, has the magic power to heal people with the food she cooks. It is one of the loveliest symbolic powers in the movie. She is one in a long line of legendary women, both of folklore and history, who knew the secrets of folk remedies and healing herbs. In European folklore, we have famous ladies such as Biddy Early or Anne Jeffries, or Hungary's lesser known but endlessly fascinating Macska Róza (Rose of the Cats). There is a lovely folktale from Tajikistan about a brave girl who sets out to find a magic plant, and learns the art of healing in the process. From the Maya South America, there is a story about a wise old woman who cures toothaches and thus saves her village.

Bruno Madrigal - Visions of the future

Seeing the future is not exactly rare in folklore and mythology. Practically everyone is doing it, from queens to strange old beggars on the roadside. But Bruno's story has two components: the fact that he sees the future, and the fact that his family basically exiles him for it. And that, in itself, is also a folktale type. It's numbered ATU 725 ("The Dream"). In it, a boy usually sees a dream or a vision of how in the future he will be a great sovereign, and his father/parents will bow down to him (Joseph, anyone?). In anger, the family kicks him out, and he has to go through a whole lot of ordeals until the vision inevitably becomes reality. (The Motif Number for this is L425). Interestingly, this tale type also exists with a female hero in a Greek collection.

Dolores Madrigal - Sharp hearing

Dolores can hear a pin drop from a mile away. Unusually sharp hearing, actually, is not at all unusual in folktales. It even has it's own motif number: F641, Person of Remarkable Hearing. These heroes usually appear in the folktale type ATU 513, Extraordinary Companions, and they are a staple member of the team in almost every variant of the story. They can hear the grass grow, ants walk, or a feather fall halfway across the world. They usually aid the tale's main hero by telling him of impending danger.
(You can find a long list of these folktales in my thesis online.)

Camilo Madrigal - Shapeshifting

Continuing with the cousins: Camilo can take on the appearance of other people, and change his body at will. Now, while shapeshifting is quite common in folklore, taking on other humans' appearances is more of a rarity. In general, human shapeshifting is reserved to... people who are not quite human. In a Roman myth, for example, Vertumnus, minor god of the changing seasons turns into various attractive men to seduce a reclusive nymph. In another myth (also from Ovid's aptly named Metamorphoses) a girl named Mestra gains the power to change her shape at will, and she uses it to get away from her abusive father. In the medieval ballads about Robin Goodfellow (a.k.a. Shakespeare's Puck) he is half mortal, half fae, and can change his shape into whatever he wants to be, including humans and animals. Since Camilo has a trickster nature in the movie, Robin is probably closest to him in personality. Another shapeshifting trickster spirit that appears as various humans is Rübezahl, the goblin king of the Silesian mountains.

Antonio Madrigal - Animal speech

Antonio, the youngest of the Madrigal children, has the power to talk to animals. Once again, this is a classic. The motif number is B216 (Knowledge of animal languages) or B217 (Animal language learned). There are too many tales to list, although unfortunately many of them involve wife-beating or even murder. So I'm only highlighting some that are better. The legend of the Da-Trang crabs from Vietnam tells of a man who gains a magic pearl that helps him understand the language of all animals. He uses his powers for good in various creative ways (until one day he loses the pearl, and his senses with it). The Italian tale where a clever boy named Bobo learns animal speech ends better: he uses his gifts to help people, and is eventually elected Pope with the help of a pair of doves. A boy named Jack from the Traveller tradition also puts his knowledge to good use, and grows rich from the secret he learns from the birds (about how to find hidden treasure while the trees go dancing). Finally, a personal favorite: in a Japanese tale an old man receives a listening hood that allows him to hear the speech of animals and plants. He uses this knowledge to help them, and also the people who don't realize the damage they are doing to nature.

Luisa Madrigal - Super strength

Super strength in folklore is as common as dirt, but it becomes a tad more interesting when we talk about super strong women. Many people might be familiar with the picture book Three Strong Women, which is based on a Japanese folktale. In it, a three-generation family of brawny ladies teach an important lesson to a sumo wrestler. It took me a while to track down the original story, about a strong girl named Oiko, in this folktale collection. She also trains a sumo wrestler to be stronger, and also teaches a lesson to villagers who try to mess with her.

Isabela Madrigal - Flower power

Isabela makes flowers grow everywhere (as well as "a hurricane of jacarandas, strangling figs, hanging wines", which is a line from her song I adore). She reminded me of a princess from Hungarian folklore: The Princess Who Makes the Forests Green and the Meadows Bloom. Wherever she walks, she brings nature to life. An Indian princess has similar abilities in a tale titled A story in search of an audience - here, she receives her gift because her pregnant mother listens to a legend no one else is willing to hear. In another, even more beautiful tale from India, a girl has the power to turn herself into a Flowering tree, providing fresh flowers for her family to sell. In the same collection we can also read about The Princess of Seven Jasmines, from whose lips jasmine flowers drop when she laughs. By the way, flowers blooming from a girl's laughter, footprints, or hair is a common motif in folklore (numbered H71.4 or D1454.2.1 in the Motif Index). It is usually a blessing that distinguishes her as a "good bride" or a "kind sister."

Mirabel Madrigal

Isn't it the entire point of the movie that Mirabel doesn't have a superpower? Well, yeah, it is. But her story is not without parallels anyway. There is a dark prophecy about her, one that everyone thinks means she will wreck the family. This reminded me of an Icelandic folktale, titled Hild, the Good Stepmother. While it is about the No. 1 rule of folklore that a prophecy always come to pass, this story goes in the opposite direction. A princess is foretold to bring ruin to her family before she turns 18: burn down the palace, get pregnant out of wedlock, and kill a man. Her stepmother, however, helps her figure out ways to bypass all three on technicalities, and in the end, she lives happily ever after with her family. (Find another version here.)


And since the house and the home of the Madrigal itself is a character in the story, I can't miss mentioning the Encante of Amazonian legends: a hidden, magical city full of magical creatures. It is usually believed to be the home of the encantados, shapeshifter people that like to appear as Amazon river dolphins. People who are lucky enough to make the journey to the Encante usually return wiser, and kinder, than before.


I have a soft spot for superpowers in folklore (I even wrote a book about it). And Encanto does an excellent job of using them.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Storytellers' Secret Santa

Who wouldn't want to receive a shiny, new, exciting story for the winter holiday of their choice - from a fellow storyteller?

This winter, I am giving a new idea a try: Secret Santa for storytellers around the globe!

Here's the rules:

1. We are sending stories as gifts to each other. You draw another storyteller's name in secret (I'll take care of this), and you send them a story. Someone else sends a story to you. That's it. Joy all around. (No, this is not a chain email!)

2. YOU GIVE A STORY, you get a story. This is important. Secret Santa kinda sucks if your gift never arrives. So, only commit if you are sure you can send your gift out in time! Don't ruin someone else's miracle.

3. Please observe copyright (see below*). This means it is easiest if we mostly work with folktales, or stories in the public domain. Be mindful of cultural appropriation.

4. We are doing this in English. For now. Only do another language if you are sure the person you send your story to shares your native language.

5. With that said, this will be extra fun if the stories are not easily accessible in English! Translating something that most people don't have access to is a very nice gift!

6. In fact, MAKE AN EFFORT. Don't just copy-paste a text from the Internet. Find something rare. Old. Shiny. Not readily available. Do some digging. Make it fun. Share the fun! Give the gift of research.

7. It is assumed that the story you gift to someone is theirs to tell. No strings attached. (Do check with your Santa if you want to publish it in the future, though!)

8. TIMELINE: Sign up on the form below by DECEMBER 6th (midnight, wherever your midnight is). The day after, you will receive an email with the name of the person you are gifting to. Then, you have until DECEMBER 24th THE LATEST to send your story, in an email! Make it nice. Put a bow on it.

9. On the form, you will get the chance to give 3 keywords about what kinds of stories you generally like. This will be a guideline for your Secret Santa, but not a guarantee! Be open to new stories.

10. Keep the stories family friendly, unless explicitly stated in the keywords otherwise.

Are we good? Good.

Here's the form:

Please, don't troll this. Just, don't be a troll. Seriously.

* On copyright: In many countries, folktales are not under copyright. However, someone's retelling of a folktale can be. Also, specific translations can be protected by copyright too. It is worth checking the rules in your home country. Look for sources that are in the public domain (also depends on the country, but online archives are a great place to start!). If you work with a folktale, try to find multiple versions, and craft your own telling of it.

You can also craft your own story. But be aware that this is a Secret Santa for storytellers, so no novelettes or literary short stories, please. We are sharing tellable tales. Fairy tales. Fables. Legends. You get the idea.

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Greenland Bestiary (Island folktales 1. - Greenland)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. "Island folktales" is a series where I read stories from islands that are not sovereign nations. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

THIS BOOK IS FOR 18+ only. CW: basically everything. Be warned.

Bestiarium Greenlandica

A compendium of the mythical creatures, spirits, and strange beings of Greenland
Maria Bach Kreutzmann
Eye of Newt Books, 2021.

If you think the krampus is the epitome of folk horror, don't read this book. Or do. If you dare.
I found the book at the National Museum of Denmark, and I immediately had to buy it. It is a real treat for storytellers, folklorists, horror fans, and artists alike: An encyclopedia of the mythical creatures of Greenland that does not only contain descriptions and short legends, but also an illustration for every single creature. Artists from Greenland created illustrations that are equal parts gorgeous, fascinating, and sometimes nightmare-inducing.
Next to the high quality, the book also contains a lot of in-depth information. There is an introduction about how the collection was born, a chapter on Greenland's history, a list of alternate names and their spelling, a bibliography, a glossary, a map, artist bios, and even a short essay on Greenland shamanism. Every creature comes with a pronunciation guide (which really comes in handy, you'll see why). The culture presented on the page is rich, enchanting, and probably unknown to a lot of people (especially because many think Greenland is just like Iceland, but bigger) (the Vikings thought so too).
The stories only appear in shortened versions, but I found a good number of them online in this book.


Sassuma Arnaa, the Mother of the Sea, is a character I have loved for a long time. She is the goddess of the ocean. When the sins and carelessness of humans tangles and dirties her hair, the animals get stuck in it, and life disappears from the waters. Then, a shaman has to descent into her realm to clean and untangle her hair.
Another interesting character was Asiaq, goddess of the wind, whose body is all topsy-turvy (her mouth is vertical, for example), and so is her home. No one wanted to marry her, so she stole a baby and raised it to be her husband. When she gets bored with him, she turns him into a baby again. She makes rain by shaking his urine out of the diapers... A third powerful figure was Pissaap Inua, the Lord of Strength, a human-faced fox who gifts strength to the weak. In one story a bullied orphan boy asked him for help, and grew so strong that he could kill polar bears with his hands. The Lord of Strength gave him the gift by throwing him into the air with his tail, and shaking all the childhood toys out of his pockets (read the story here).

Art by Agust Kristinsson
I was fascinated by the creature called aassik, basically a giant worm (like in Dune, but with ice instead of sand). According to legend, they can be tamed and harnessed to pull a sled. In one story a young man harnessed a polar bear, and aassik, and an amaroq to his sled to go rescue his sister. Amaroq are giant wolves that can also change into humans sometimes. In one story a young man died in the wilderness, and his body was consumed by amaroq. Their grandmother collected their excrement, covered it with moss, and brought the man back to life. He became a famous hunter.
Art by Jonatan Brüsch

Another exciting creature was the eqalussuak, a Greenland shark that can walk on land, and despite its terrifying appearance it protects orphans, widows, and single women. The award for best name, however, goes to the ikkiillineqanngeqqissaartoq (something akin to a fox, but with a sharp blade on its back that it can use to disembowel giants). The nicest beings were the little people called qamallarlutik who can never sit still, and sometimes turn into ptarmigans. 
Among the shaman legends the strangest was the one about a young man who did not want to accept his calling as a shaman, so one of his helper spirits, a nappaasilat (giant polar bear) dragged him out of the house by the testicles and tossed him into the sea, where another helper, and aaverpak (walrus) bit him and kicked him around until he agreed to become a shaman. (By the way, the nappaasilat can also possess a shaman, and make them turn into a polar bear with healing powers). There were other exciting shaman legends as well, such as the one where children were kidnapped by a monster named amaarsisartoq. A shaman rescued them, but then the monster stuffed him into its hood instead. Eventually, the shaman was rescued by his helper spirits. 
Art by Maja-Lisa Kehlet
There was a beautiful story about a girl abandoned by her lover, who was invited into the home of a woman in black clothes. At the end, it turned out that the mysterious woman who consoled the girl was an inorrooq, a raven shapeshifter.
One of the creepiest creatures was the akueqqutit, an invisible spirit, a kind of reverse conscience: it whispers to people, making them do all the wrong things. Allegedly it is so evil that not even flesh can grow on it, which is why it is invisible.
Another haunting belief was about the qivittut: if someone wants to acquire magic powers, they have to walk into the wilderness, and freeze to death in five days. After that, they become magical creatures, and the women even turn into half polar bear.


Next to all the mythical creatures and shaman beliefs, Christianity also made an appearance. A shaman called Aattaaritaa decided to convert, after he saw a vision of the end of the world. One of his helper spirits tried to talk him out of it ("If the world ends, I will start it again!"), but the shaman turned his back on the spirit world in the end.

Art by Agust Kristinsson

Monday, November 22, 2021

Tales of the Sea Nomads (Folktales of Asian minorities 2. - Moken)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Rings ​of Coral
Moken folktales
Jacques Ivanoff
White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2001.

The 44 stories in this book were collected in the 1980s from the Moken people, sea nomads who travel in their ships among the islands between Thailand and Myanmar. The introduction tells us about their lifestyle, the islands, the storytelling tradition, and the collection process. It was fascinating to read about the connection between the collector and the Mokens - like the shaman who secretly recorded an extra myth that the collector only found on the tape after he returned home. The Moken believe their epics have power: some of them can even summon a storm. The introduction lists the storytellers, many of whom were members of the shaman's family, but knew different stories.
Each tale comes with end notes, which are vital (but you have to turn the pages back and forth a lot). There are some black-and-white and some color illustrations too.


Several stories were about the origin of taboos and traditions. For example, in the story of Péma Alang a husband told his wife what not to do while he was harvesting swallow nests (combing hair summons sharks, shaking clothes makes wind, etc.). The wife did not listen, and her husband fell to his death in the caves. In another legend a captain, also called Péma, did not give respect to the monkeys of Surin Island (monkeys are revered by the Moken), and tried to fight them, so the monkeys, led by a spirit, bit him to death. In the story of Pinang and the Sea Spirit a mysterious woman climbed aboard a man's ship, and they fell in love. The woman told him not to kill anything that "comes from the sea and has eyes." (Especially turtles, although he wasn't sure if she was a turtle or a dugong spirit). Surprisingly, the husband kept the taboo.
Naturally, ships and sailing played an important role in the stories. I was fascinated by the legend of the crying rope, where a sea snake bit a ship's rudder, and its venom was so potent that it killed everyone on board. Then, a rope came to life, slithered into the noses of the dead, and brought them back to life. That rope has been considered a living spirit ever since.
According to Moken belief, the ebb and tide are caused by a giant crab that lives in a cave under a sky-high mango tree. The tree has other inhabitants as well: a Gaurda bird nests among its branches with its daughter, and below it lives a beautiful woman who seduces sailors and feeds them to the sharks.
In one legend the Moken sailed west, to reach the Land of Amber, and reached the Ficus that grew all kinds of food. There, they got shipwrecked, and the three Moken ancestors made their way back home three different ways: one on the back of a ray, one on the back of a giant bird, and one on an Indian ship.
I also liked the story about an evil giant who killed a woman and took her place; the woman's spirit turned into various things, and finally her son managed to break the spell, winning back his parents.

Image from here


In the epic of Nyonya, sung in the Malay language, Nyonya marries a man named Jawan Moda after her husband's death. When the new husband cheats on her, she flies home to her parents. Her husband follows, and manages to win back her respect by defending her island from an invading army with the help of monkeys and bears. The battle reminded me of the Ramayana.
Awang the Frog was a frog husband tale, complete with an epic battle, while the story of Kaét was a snake husband story (there were multiple of those in the book). Kaét's father killed her snake lover many times, but he kept coming back to life, and finally the woman, disappointed by her father's cruelty, took her family and moved up to the sky.
The legend of Kechot and Death was about a woman who met walking dead people on an island. The dead asked her to ferry them to another place, but she refused - that is why people do not come back to life after their death anymore.
As for tricksters: There was a Mouse Deer story, but it was pretty jumbled, as if the storyteller only remembered parts of it. At the end of the book, however, among the stories from other collections I found an excellent Mouse Deer and Tiger tale, with tricks I have not heard before.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Goodnight stories for headhunters (Folktales of Asian minorities 1. - Iban / Sea Dyak)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

I know I have not finished the Chinese minorities series yet, but I have gotten my hands on some awesome books recently, so I am taking a detour.

The Girl Sudan Painted Like a Gold Ring

Folktales from the Sea Dyaks of Sarawak, Borneo
Theresa Fuller
Bare Bear Media, 2022.

The Iban (Sea Dyak/Dayak) people number about one million, and live on the island of Borneo in the area of Sarawak, along the seashore and rivers. They live in longhouses that house several families, and until recently they had a tradition of headhunting.
The author, storyteller Theresa Fuller, sent me an ARC copy of this book. I was happy about it, because I like folktales from Borneo and I have not read any from the Dyak tradition before. The book contains ten stories, many of them multiple chapters long; they are interspersed with shorter legends and trickster tales. Each comes with a short cultural introduction, and the re-told texts contain many fascinating details about Dyak everyday life. The author added two parts to two longer stories that came from her own imagination, describing parts of the narrative from the women's point of view. These (carefully noted) sections were more novel-like than the folktales, but very beautiful, and rich in detail. At the end of the book we also get a glossary, and a chapter on Dyak culture.


The title story was beautiful and fascinating. The protagonist, Siu, was one of those hunters who accidentally wander into the spirit realm and learn that animals are also human in their own world. He marries the daughter of the king of spirits, and promises never to hunt birds again. When he inevitably breaks his promise, she leaves him. He goes on a  journey, raising their son in the wilderness. After many exciting adventures, they find her again, and the (now grown) son has to prove that, as a half-spirit, he is worthy of being a member of her family. One of the challenges was a spinning top competition, which I especially liked.
Another person who wandered into the spirit realm was Pulang-Gana, who followed a porcupine, and fell in love with another spirit princess. When he returned home, and his brothers treated him badly, he became the god of the earth that everyone has to respect.
Headhunting played an important role in the tale of Danjai and the Were-tiger's Sister. Here the tiger killed a young woman, and her husband, Danjai, set out to take revenge. Entering the tiger's realm he met his sister, who was kind, and helped the hero behead her evil brother. They fell in love, she returned the dead wife's head, and the hero set out to find another head - as a wedding present.
I liked the apocalyptic tale where people tortured a dog, and in punishment a terrible storm turned them all into stone (except for one kind family). In another story, girls made fun of innocent animals, and met the same fate.


The trickster in residence was our favorite Mouse Deer, here known as Akal Pelandok (Ageless Mouse Deer). He was featured in multiple trickster tales, such as Pelandok and the Giant (where he outwitted a giant that stole fish from the animals), or Pelandok, Sambar and Pig (where the animals fell into a pit, and Pelandok used the others to get free). In the latter, the two outwitted animals tried to hunt him down, but Mouse Deer tricked them with classic tricks he also uses on Tiger in other stories. In a third tale, Pelandok and Kikura the Tortoise mutually played tricks on each other, and also on a monkey and a bear.